Tuesday, June 23, 2009

5 High-Tech Fixes for USA Infrastructure

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

To find innovative new solutions to the world's toughest technical challenges, we called some of America's smartest engineers and scientists for their quick fixes and long-term plans. Here, we look at 5 out-there ideas that could shape the future of U.S. Infrastructure—robots that clean pipes, tailless airplanes, earthquake-proof buildings and more ways to stop deadly asteroids.

Build Better Airlines and Airplanes With NASA Tech

The story of winged human flight begins without a tail—the Wright Brothers’ first successful glider didn’t have one. Soon, biplanes ushered in the now-standard tube-and-wing design for aircraft, but experiments with blended wings never really stopped. The planes are potentially more aero­dynamic and consume less fuel, though they are harder to maneuver. Researchers hope that computerized, fly-by-wire systems will soon overcome the control challenges and spawn an era of fuel-efficient heavy lifters. One proposed design is the SAX-40, an airliner that could trim fuel use by more than 20 percent and fly quietly enough to take off and land during late-night hours that are currently restricted. According to Jim Hileman, a researcher at MIT and chief engineer on the project, expanding the hours of operation for airports could reduce air traffic congestion—and the fuel wasted by circling planes—while avoiding legal battles over new runway construction.

The plane is just a thought experiment for now, created by Hileman and his colleagues in the Silent Aircraft Initiative, a U.K.-funded collaboration between Cambridge University and MIT. But the design’s enthusiasts are encouraged by successful, ongoing tests of the X-48B, a blended-wing prototype built by Boeing in cooperation with NASA and the Air Force. The company is focusing purely on military applications, but Hileman points out that wrestling civilian benefits from defense research is a grand old aviation tradition—the 707, Boeing’s first commercial passenger jet, had a military lineage. “Maybe the U.S. Air Force will build a better tanker or bomber, which leads to a blended-wing airliner.” Ultimately, Hileman says, aeronautical engineers will have to step up their game. “We haven’t reached full maturity with our designs,” he says. “We can still make a real impact on fuel use and aircraft noise.”

Cloak Buildings From Earthquakes
Like so many of the best things in life, the inspiration for cloaking technology comes from the Klingons, who used it on their starships. Researchers have had some success “cloaking” an object by redirecting light around it to render it invisible. But the principle might work even better to shield buildings from earthquake damage. The structures would incorporate “metamaterials” patterned with tiny circles whose size is proportional to the wavelength of seismic disturbances. The waves would travel along the material, missing the structure. Real-World Potential: The theory seems sound, but years of experimentation lie ahead. And engineers would then need to devise ways to build the technology into new buildings. (Retrofits would likely remain impossible.)

Oil companies employ drones called “pigs” to crawl through pipelines, spotting corrosion. Fancier pipe bots are in development, destined for heroic feats such as shimmying through shattered plumbing to find earthquake survivors. But the most useful job for such robots could be patrolling thousands of miles of leaking municipal water lines. One design group took the inspiration for its bloblike robot from amoebas, but most of the new bots resemble snakes. A Canadian robot called Regina Pipe Crawler (RPC) is nearing commercialization. Controlled remotely, RPC can inspect a bending 6-inch-­diameter pipe while the water is flowing at full strength. With enough pipe bots on the job, engineers could stop wasteful leaks and prevent catastrophic failures.

Teleport Data in Super Computers

Star Trek–style teleporters will never, ever be invented. And that’s okay—after all, who would agree to be obliterated and then reconstituted by a guy named Scotty, trusting that no atom or eyeball was out of place? But scientists at the University of Maryland have teleported data, swapping the quantum states of two atoms positioned a meter apart. It was a step toward the creation of quantum computers, which could perform many simultaneous operations, crunching data exponentially faster than today’s systems. Real-World Potential: On a rudimentary level, the technology works now, but practical (let alone world-changing) quantum computing is decades in the future.

Test Anti-Asteroid Tech
This past March, a 154-foot-wide asteroid came within 48,800 miles of Earth, just twice the altitude of some satellites. It was big enough to destroy a city. No one saw it coming. Not that it would have helped: There’s no procedure in place for deflecting space rocks, just a list of concepts. But two astronauts—Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the Association of Space Explorers–Near Earth Object Committee, and Thomas D. Jones, a PM contributing editor—have a plan.

(1) Build more asteroid-hunting telescopes. Projects that need more funding include a Canadian space-based telescope and a series of ground-based systems in Hawaii.

(2) Assign asteroid-deflection authority to an international committee. With no one in charge, individual nations might launch Pyrrhic schemes: “In the past, there was a Russian proposal to have a 50-megaton nuclear missile in the silo, ready to launch at any asteroid that shows up,” Jones says. Bad idea—it could create a lethal storm of fragments.

(3) Run a rehearsal mission. One plan is to park an unmanned spacecraft alongside the offending asteroid, while kinetic impactors—guided missiles minus the warheads—slam into it. The first craft helps the impactors target the object and acts as a gravity tractor, using its mass to nudge the rock off course. If something really huge heads our way, we could always resort to that 50-megaton nuke tactic—with luck the bomb would ignite gases in the asteroid that would spew outwards and nudge the rock from its apocalyptic path.


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